Challenging vs Toxic Grad School

Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at El Paso wrote a beautiful article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. She mentions the differences between a challenging and a toxic grad school environment.

Challenging environment –

  1. Long hours spent working on a research project problem, going on tiring long field trips, studying courses, doing assignments, writing proposals and journal papers.
  2. Research related rejections including publications and a wrong dataset of results etc.
  3. Disagreeing with advisor and colleagues; having healthy discussions.
  4. Long hours studying for qualifying or candidacy exams.
  5. Multiple failures but still hanging on with the help of family, friends, and colleagues.

Toxic environment –

  1. Being yelled at, asked to be more mature and understanding.
  2. Dreadful and abusive group and individual advisor meetings.
  3. Fear of asking for a vacation.
  4. Extreme competition among doctoral students.
  5. Not helpful in guiding during meetings.

If you are in a toxic environment as described above, there are a few questions you need to answer.  Are you happy? Do you like graduate school? Do you like your research? Leaving grad school is not a failure. Do what is best for yourself. Meet a psychologist and talk to him/her. It will definitely help. Talk to a middleman in the department or university and take their advice. It is important to note that God helps those who help themselves.

If you are an advisor and a student is in need of help, encourage them to have family and personal time. Have a friendly and healthy environment. Provide students with links and phone numbers for counseling if required. If you are in a powerful position in the university and can help a doctoral student in distress, please do so.



Shift in the purpose of higher education – Future of the University

Over the past years, getting a job eventually has become the sole purpose of doing higher education. It is important to note that about 80% of the freshmen today believe that being financially well off after graduation is very important compared to 40% in 1971. Only 40% people believe that developing a meaningful philosophy in life is important. People are more focused on paying off their tuition debts than focusing on gaining knowledge, non-technical skills and intellect. Higher paid majors like Business and Engineering are gaining popularity. Students graduating with business degrees is almost double than the second in the list.

The question being – Is this shift good for higher education? Are other skills like critical thinking and diverse background not needed? The prime focus of students is to finish assignments, quizzes, and score well in exams. One goal of education is to get a good job. But, that’s not it. Employers are also nowadays in need of employees with not only good GPAs but also qualities like adaptability, communication skills, and the ability to solve complex problems. There is a need to have a more comprehensive curriculum not only for a getting a good job and salary package but also for the overall development of a human being. What do you think?



Higher education should focus on more than just workplace skills

2016 Doctoral Degree Recipients Data

According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), a federally sponsored annual census of research degree recipients, U.S. universities awarded 54,904 research doctorate degrees in 2016 very close to the previous year’s record of 54,909. The report ( was published by SED in collaboration with the National Science Foundation (NSF). SED has been collecting this data since 1957. Some of the important findings of the report are –

  1. Science and Engineering Doctorates – S&E doctorate numbers have constantly increased over the years. The proportion of S&E doctorates climbed from 57% in 1976 to 75% in 2016. This gap between the S&E and non-S&E is gradually widening.
  2. Citizenship – The number of doctorates awarded to both U.S. citizens and temporary visa holders has increased by 2% since 2015. It has increased by about 20% for temporary visa holders and by 39% for U.S. citizens since 2006.
  3. Foreign Countries – China, India, South Korea accounted for about half of the doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders.
  4. Gender – U.S. women citizens have been awarded slightly more doctorates in 2016 as compared U.S. men. Woman temporary visa holders account for about 30% of the total doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders. From 1996 to 2016, the number of women earning degrees in S&E fields increased by 84 percent.
  5. Race and Ethnicity – Number of doctorates awarded to African Americans has increased by 32% from 2006 to 2016. For the same period, the proportion of doctorates earned by Hispanics or Latinos increased by 67 percent.
  6. Field of Study – The largest share of doctorates awarded in 2016 was in the life sciences (nearly 23 percent), followed by engineering (17 percent), and psychology and the social sciences (16.5 percent). All fields of humanities and arts made up 10 percent of doctorates awarded.
  7. Median time to complete a degree – The median time from graduate school to complete a doctoral degree has decreased for non-S&E fields but it is still years longer than the average 7-year for S&E fields.
  8. Academic Employment – Non-S&E doctorates have shown more commitment in joining academia after Ph.D. (about 75%) as compared to engineering (14%) and sciences (20%).
  9. Median Salaries – The median salaries reported for postdocs in all fields of study were lower than salaries reported by doctorate recipients entering non-postdoc employment in industry or academia.
  10. Education-related debt –  In 2016, over three quarters
    (77%) of persons who received a doctorate award at age
    30 or younger reported no graduate debt at all, compared to 55%
    of those age 31 to 40 and 50% of those age 41 or older. This is primarily due to more number of scholarships, research grants, fellowships awarded to younger Ph.D.s as compared to older ones.

What are your views on these statistics? Are the number of Ph.D.s awarded more as compared to the demand? Is it worth financially to do a postdoc or go into academia as compared to the industry? Is it financially viable to do a Ph.D. after the age of 30?



Retraction Watch – Massive Database of Retracted Papers

The number of Journal paper and Conference paper retractions over the past 3-4 decades have increased sharply. Although the statistics are alarming, it’s not sure whether the retractions have increased due to increased misconduct and fraud or are journals getting better at finding out these frauds? Retraction Watch is a blog based out of NYC and is founded by two health journalists – Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus. The blog is a searchable database consisting of more than 18,000 retractions dating back to 1970s. Science Magazine has worked with Retraction Watch to find some interesting findings and trends.

  1. Number of Retractions and its Rate – Although the absolute number of retractions have been increasing since the 1970s, the overall rate has slowed. It has remained constant since 2012. But, this reduction in the rate is partially due to the sharp increase in the number of publications which has doubled from 2003 to 2016.
  2. Retractions Reported – The number of journals reporting retractions has increased from 44 in 1997 to 488 in 2017. This is indicative of the fact that journals are considering retractions seriously.
  3. Problematic Figures – According to a study ( conducted by Stanford researchers on 20,000 papers, about 2% contained problematic figures or images suggestive of deliberate manipulation.
  4. Disproportionate Database – Around 500 out of 30,000 authors whose papers have been retracted make up about one-quarter of the total retraction database. On an average, these 500 authors have 13 or more retractions each.  Top 20 account for >30 retractions each.
  5. Country-wise retraction rates – Countries with smaller scientific communities, less strict policies and institutions for handling academic frauds and misconduct have higher rates of retractions.
  6. Retraction can be due to many reasons –  A retraction does not necessarily mean fraud or misconduct. Moreover, about 40% of retraction cases were due to errors, reliability, problems with reproducibility. Rest, 50% is mostly fraud or misconduct (fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism). Forged authorship, fake peer reviews, and failure to obtain approval from institutional review boards for research on human subjects or animals account for about remaining 10%.
  7. The stigma associated with retractions – Most of the readers of the retracted papers under notice are scared of citing or believing the results in these papers. But, it should be noted that these papers are under notice for correction because of honest errors or problematic practices.
  8. Single Origin – The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has about 40% of the retractions in the database which is about 7300 abstracts. Most of the abstracts are from IEEE conferences that took place between 2009 and 2011. The 2011 International Conference on E-Business and E-Government alone resulted in retractions of more than 1200 abstracts.
  9. Co-authors – Co-authors who become targets of retraction due to collaborations need to be more careful. They should always think of authoring papers with different colleagues. In case their co-author work is hit by retractions, it is not the end of the world.

These are some really fascinating findings. What do you think? Are the increasing number of misconduct cases alarming? Are the editors or peer review committee review process getting better in finding these cases? Why do developing countries like Iran, Romania, Singapore, South Korea, China, India etc. have higher retraction rate than developed countries like the U.S.A, U.K. etc?